Passing crucial for Gophers

Senior quarterback Brian Cupito set multiple career highs last season.

Chris Lempesis

CHICAGO – For the past couple of seasons, the cover of Minnesota’s football team media guide has been graced by players with last names like Barber III, Maroney, Eslinger and Setterstrom.

Those players were some of the key cogs in the Gophers’ dominant rushing machine, widely viewed as one of the nation’s best.

The players most prominently featured on the cover of this year’s media guide, however – senior quarterback Bryan Cupito and senior tight end Matt Spaeth – could signify a shift in the Gophers’ philosophy on offense.

“I think you’ll see a change in us,” coach Glen Mason said. “Not that we’re not going to Ö expect to run the ball effectively. But I think we’ve got the ability to do other things and for us to have the same type of offensive success, we’re going to have to do some other things.”

A big reason for the possible shift is Minnesota’s lack of experience at running back. Junior Laurence Maroney’s early departure to the NFL and sophomore Gary Russell’s departure due to academic struggles have left the team with just one “experienced” running back, junior Amir Pinnix.

Appearing in 10 games, with zero starts, Pinnix rushed for 467 yards on 78 carries, scoring one touchdown.

But nearly half of his production (32 carries, 206 yards and one touchdown) came in the Gophers’ Nov. 12 game against Michigan State when Maroney was hurt.

The team also will rebuild an offensive line with three of five spots filled with new starters.

While the situation at running back and offensive line is in flux, the offense as a whole is not green, and for evidence there is no better place to start than with Cupito.

The fifth-year senior is beginning his third straight year as the Gophers’ starting quarterback and also is coming off his best statistical season at Minnesota. Cupito completed nearly 60 percent of his passes in 2005, throwing for 2,530 yards and 19 touchdowns – all career highs.

“He’s played a lot of football for us,” Mason said. “He’s played well and my observations from the 15 days in spring practice (are that) he’s a much-improved quarterback.”

Mason also said that while the Gophers have had a lot of success moving the ball on the ground, the team should have gone to the air more often in the past.

His confidence could be reflected on the field as the offense, at least until the running game sorts itself out, will be Cupito’s to run, something Cupito said made him excited.

“When you have great players (at running back) you’ve got to run the ball, and I accepted that early,” Cupito said. “But now I think it’s our time to throw the ball and make things happen and I think we can do that.”

That could be true, but having a bigger load to shoulder might not necessarily be such a good thing for Cupito, according to ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

“Maybe they will be able to run the football,” Herbstreit said. “(A proven running back), that’s a quarterback’s best friend. So when you take that away, it just puts more pressure on the quarterback in the passing game.”

The pressure will largely be on Cupito, especially early on. But he is certainly not without proven pass catchers – take Spaeth, for example.

Spaeth, widely regarded to be one of the best tight ends in the nation heading into the 2006 season, should see a large boost in his numbers from last season when he caught 26 passes for 333 yards and four touchdowns.

“I’ve really put forth a lot of effort and dedication this summer into working on that aspect of my game,” Spaeth said. “Running routes, catching balls, because when the time comes and I’m called on, I want to be ready.”

Cupito called Spaeth “hands down, the best tight end in the Big Ten” and admitted that he needs to get him the ball more.

“I don’t utilize him enough,” Cupito said.

Spaeth said he is excited about his new role in the offense.

“An offensive player – especially a guy like a tight end or receiver or running back – you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t want the ball,” Spaeth said. “And yeah, I can’t wait. Hopefully I can get my hands on the ball as much as I can.”

In the past, Mason said he liked to go with a 60-40 ratio of running to passing.

But with veteran players like Cupito and Spaeth – along with senior wide receiver Logan Payne and junior wideout Ernie Wheelwright – there’s a good chance that ratio won’t hold.

“I think we’ll go into each game throwing the ball to start off,” Cupito said, “and kind of mix it up after and see how it goes and hopefully we’re successful.”